With or without a lawyer?
Several times in my career, I have come across a situation where a company has decided to save money and do it themselves instead of asking a lawyer for help. These situations have often been related to challenges that arose after a do-it-yourself project, such as a disagreement over a contract that was left open to interpretation. These issues have come to my desk when the milk has already been spilled and the mess needs to be cleaned up.
I have found that there are many reasons for wanting to do it yourself. Sometimes it’s fear of the cost of hiring a lawyer; sometimes it’s confidence in your own ability to do it and do it even better. Both reasons are right and justified in their own ways. The bigger challenge is knowing when it is better to do it yourself and when to call a lawyer.
An unhelpful lawyer can be both costly and bad for the client. This is not to say that the lawyer himself is particularly expensive or bad, but that the cooperation between lawyer and client is not working, leading to the outcome noted above. In a working partnership, costs are not the focus of the partnership. Over the years, I have found that my clients are invariably better experts than I am in their own businesses, while I am almost invariably a better legal expert. When you combine the two, you get a winning combination with a better result than if done alone, and both parties benefit.
Benefits experienced by our clients
Every year, our office has a customer satisfaction survey carried out by an external party. In addition to the usual qualitative and objectively assessed criteria, the survey also asks about the more subjective experiences of our clients. One of these questions relates to the client’s experience of the main benefits of our service. Year after year, peace of mind has been at the top of the list. At first, we thought it was a mistake because peace of mind had accidentally come first in the list of options. However, moving it down on the list has not detracted from the emphasis on peace of mind as the main benefit experienced by our clients.
There is a fascinating contradiction here. If one major benefit of using our services is peace of mind, why would any client want to sacrifice peace of mind by saving and doing it themselves? One possible explanation is a dysfunctional relationship between client and principal. I believe that the peace of mind experienced by the client reflects the strong trust that exists between a lawyer and client in this collaboration. This trust is at a much deeper level than reliance on professional competence. Both parties in a cooperative relationship trust that the other will do their part and do their best.
Is a lawyer part of your team?
Along the way, I have had the opportunity to follow the journey of several of my clients from an early-stage business idea to startup and all the way to exit. Equally, I’ve seen clients struggle with bankruptcy and the personal impact it has on an entrepreneur who loses not only their dream but also their fortune. Both paths are difficult and instructive, and despite the difference in financial outcome, they have much in common. Many of the entrepreneurs I know who have successfully sold their businesses and those who have gone bankrupt have started new companies that have grown into success stories. In both cases, the driving force of the new business is the lessons learned from the previous business, whether it was a success or a failure, and a familiar team with whom things have been done and experienced.
The external lawyer is rarely seen as a critical part of the success factors and the team, and I am not suggesting that this is the case. However, I would argue that not using a lawyer or working poorly with one increases the risk of failure. Our society has increasingly evolved in a direction where the role of written agreements is becoming more important, and the old “handshake” type of agreement is becoming part of folklore. Whether we like this trend or not, it is hard to see how the same trend will not continue. That is why a lawyer is increasingly needed as part of the team, if not at the core, then at least on the periphery.
When I talk to a potential new client, I think it is important that both parties benefit from the cooperation and that it is possible to build a working relationship between client and principal. From the beginning, mutual respect and openness are required. I have been in the legal profession long enough to unashamedly admit my ignorance of a client’s business or product. I have yet to meet a client who is reluctant to tell me about their business, their products, or answer simple questions, when the common goal is to build a partnership where the lawyer really understands what their client is doing. This understanding is an important part of building a working partnership and trust, which at its best translates into the peace of mind the client experiences.
As a lawyer is a necessary part of modern business, it is difficult to avoid the costs of using one. Sometimes avoiding these costs can be justified, such as in an early-stage startup where you are living hand-to-mouth and mistakes happen on a small enough scale to be corrected later. On the other hand, doing it yourself can bring short-term savings but a long-term headache with an even bigger price tag. If the reason for not using a lawyer is financial, it is worth discussing the situation openly with the lawyer and considering alternatives where the financial constraints are considered, and the matter is dealt with together. Long-term cooperation sometimes involves adversity, requiring flexibility on both sides. If, on the other hand, the reason is the experience of the uselessness of using a lawyer, it is worth thinking carefully about how well the cooperation is working and the level of mutual trust.
We exceed our clients’ expectations
It is often forgotten that, despite the stigma of expertise, the work of a lawyer is also a service profession. A higher education and the title of attorney give you the formal qualifications to handle even the most demanding cases, but do not automatically bring value to the client. Value must be earned and created. Some years ago, we worked in our office to define our vision, mission and values. After long discussions, our vision, in all its simplicity, became “We exceed our clients’ expectations every day.” At first, we thought such a declaration was too clichéd. In the end, we liked the idea that this was our “bottom line”, towards which it was easy to head. Our sights are set high and some days or some things we may fail, but if we achieve our goals most days and in most things, we will do well, and our customers will have peace of mind.
The best lawyers can deliver peace of mind to their clients. If the client does not have that peace of mind, the lawyer will not have it either, and the collaboration is unlikely to be effective and meaningful. It is usually not a question of the lawyer’s competence or lack thereof, but of a lack of cooperation between the parties. In the worst case, this leads to the proliferation of do-it-yourself thinking, which can lead to short-term savings by taking unnecessary and unknown risks in the long term without even realising it.
Collaboration that works well is rewarding, fun, mutually beneficial, and financially sound. It is also effective. When a lawyer knows his or her client, communication and the execution of assignments are straightforward. The lawyer is automatically assigned to the right cases, and, if necessary, it is determined whether the case requires the lawyer’s assistance or whether it is a do-it-yourself case. When the client knows the lawyer, there is also no fear of a randomly determined invoice total or of the lawyer’s commitment to the client. This is peace of mind.